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Educ. Sci. 2017, 7(1), 16;

Dewey on Seriousness, Playfulness and the Role of the Teacher

UCL Institute of Education, Department of Education, Practice and Society, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK
Academic Editors: Paul Standish and SunInn Yun
Received: 25 October 2016 / Revised: 21 December 2016 / Accepted: 3 January 2017 / Published: 13 January 2017
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Democracy and Education at 100)
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The chapter that John Dewey dedicates to consideration of play and work in the curriculum in Democracy and Education echoes his thoughts on the same subject in How We Think, which preceded Democracy and Education by six years. Dewey closes How We Think with a more expansive treatment of the topic and is keen not only to recast the traditional dichotomy of work and play as distinct kinds of educational activity but to challenge the hierarchical status of the accompanying mental states of seriousness and playfulness. Dewey argues that a combination of playfulness and seriousness represents the ideal mental attitude of the artist: teaching is an art, therefore the teacher is an artist and the ideal mental attitude of the teacher to his or work combines the playful and the serious. It is the task of the teacher to inculcate such habits of mind in his or her students for whom it is implicitly the ideal mental state for learning. It is in the light of this that we should understand what characterises play and work as features of educational activity. Consideration of what Dewey meant is accompanied by an example from contemporary educational practice intended to illustrate Dewey’s sense of purposeful activity in which a playful approach creates the kind of embodied experience that will help students to achieve desired educational outcomes. This will lead to reflection on how the role of the teacher as an artist might be conceived, resisting both the temptation towards an instrumental characterisation of playfulness derived from the application of discoveries in cognitive science to classroom practice and goal-directed notions of seriousness. I will argue that alongside the conventional classroom skills of the teacher, what is required is an authentic presence that is attuned to the nature of what is being taught, together with a concern for the outcomes to be achieved. Such an attunement would allow for playfulness and humour as well as seriousness. It is an attunement between both the individual and others in mutuality and with him or herself. These thoughts will be developed via extended reflection upon two scenes from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006). These scenes draw attention to the importance of conversation for both the teacher/student relationship and as a medium for playful and serious exploration of academic content. If we only think of the Deweyan attitude of the artist in an impersonal sense then the kind of seriousness that is internal to the personal expression of claims about art, ethics, morality, politics, even history, remains unheard, at least in an educational context. It is to this that I turn through consideration of conversation and mutuality in the work of Stanley Cavell via Michael Oakeshott’s observations about seriousness and playfulness in conversation and further comments offered by Paul Standish on what it means to say something. View Full-Text
Keywords: seriousness; playfulness; artist; conversation; teaching seriousness; playfulness; artist; conversation; teaching
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).

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Skilbeck, A. Dewey on Seriousness, Playfulness and the Role of the Teacher. Educ. Sci. 2017, 7, 16.

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